Did a neurological disorder cause a musician to compose Boléro and an artist to paint it 66 years later?
In 1986, Anne Adams was working as a cell biologist at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada. She took a leave of absence from her work to care for a sick child, and while she was away, she completely changed her interests, dropping biology entirely and turning her attention to art. In 1994, she completed her painting Unravelling Boléro (Seeley et al., 2008), which is a translation of Maurice Ravel’s famous orchestral piece onto canvas. This artwork — refer to “Boléro: Beautiful Symptom of a Terrible Disease” (Aldhous, 2008) — is filled with themes of repetition. Each bar of music is represented by a lacy vertical figure, with the height representing volume, the shape representing note quality, and the colour representing the music’s pitch. Like Ravel’s music featured in the video below, which is a hypnotic piece consisting of two melodial themes repeated eight times over 340 musical bars, the theme in the painting repeats and builds, leading to a dramatic change in colour from blue to orange and pink, a representation of Boléro’s sudden and dramatic climax.
Maurice Ravel’s Boléro was composed in 1928 during the early phase of his illness. The following YouTube link is the Johann Strauss Orchestra, directed by André Rieu, performing Ravel’s Boléro in 2007:
- Video: Boléro-Ravel (Consejomunicipal, 2007)
Shortly after finishing the painting, Adams began to experience behavioural problems, including increased difficulty speaking. Neuroimages of Adams’s brain taken during this time show that regions in the front part of her brain, which are normally associated with language processing, had begun to deteriorate, while at the same time regions of the brain responsible for the integration of information from the five senses were unusually well-developed (Seeley et al., 2008). The deterioration of the frontal cortex is a symptom of frontotemporal dementia, a disease that is associated with changes in artistic and musical tastes and skills (Miller, Boone, Cummings, Read, & Mishkin, 2000), as well as with an increase in repetitive behaviours (Aldhous, 2008).
What Adams did not know at the time was that her brain may have been undergoing the same changes that Ravel’s had undergone 66 years earlier. In fact, it appears that Ravel may have suffered from the same neurological disorder. Ravel composed Boléro at age 53, when he himself was beginning to show behavioural symptoms that were interfering with his ability to move and speak. Scientists have concluded, based on an analysis of his written notes and letters, that Ravel was also experiencing the effects of frontotemporal dementia (Amaducci, Grassi, & Boller, 2002). If Adams and Ravel were both affected by the same disease, this could explain why they both became fascinated with the repetitive aspects of their arts, and it would present a remarkable example of the influence of our brains on behaviour.
Every behaviour begins with biology. Our behaviours, as well as our thoughts and feelings, are produced by the actions of our brains, nerves, muscles, and glands. In this chapter, we will begin our journey into the world of psychology by considering the biological makeup of the human being, including the most remarkable of human organs: the brain. We will consider the structure of the brain and also the methods that psychologists use to study the brain and to understand how it works.
We will see that the body is controlled by an information highway known as the nervous system, a collection of hundreds of billions of specialized and interconnected cells through which messages are sent between the brain and the rest of the body. The nervous system consists of the central nervous system (CNS), made up of the brain and the spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), the neurons that link the CNS to our skin, muscles, and glands. We will see that our behaviour is also influenced in large part by the endocrine system, the chemical regulator of the body that consists of glands that secrete hormones.
Although this chapter begins at a very low level of explanation and the topic of study may seem at first to be far from the everyday behaviours that we all engage in, a full understanding of the biology underlying psychological processes is an important cornerstone of your new understanding of psychology. We will consider throughout the chapter how our biology influences important human behaviours, including our mental and physical health, our reactions to drugs, as well as our aggressive responses and our perceptions of other people. This chapter is particularly important for contemporary psychology because the ability to measure biological aspects of behaviour, including the structure and function of the human brain, is progressing rapidly, and understanding the biological foundations of behaviour is an increasingly important line of psychological study.
Understanding psychology also requires us to have some familiarity with how our genes contribute to how we think, feel, and behave. Everything we do involves our genes at some level, but we may be unused to considering how this may occur. There are two broad ways of looking at this topic.
The first broad view of the relationship of genes to psychology is to use evolutionary theory. Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand what human adaptations have evolved related to thinking, feeling, and behaving. Furthermore, these psychologists seek to understand how such adaptations operate in environments that are often significantly different from those in which the they evolved. Evolutionary psychology is concerned with human universals; as such, evolutionary psychologists are not interested in genetic differences but in structures, processes, or organs that are genetically the same in everyone. For example, there is little to no genetic variability in the design for the human heart. It exists in the same part of the body with the same basic structures and performs the same function for all humans. There may be individual differences in size, efficiency, and so on, but the basic design is universal. The genetic variability in design is very small. The human heart operates in a multitude of environments, such as at high altitude, under extreme temperature, while climbing hills, in infancy, in old age, or with clogged arteries. This example can be used to show how evolutionary psychologists approach the study of psychological adaptations. They are interested in their design features: what psychological adaptations are designed for and how they operate in different environments. This perspective requires researchers to, first of all, use evolutionary theory to try to predict what adaptations should have occurred throughout our evolutionary history, and then they look for evidence for the existence of such things. The environment of evolutionary adaptiveness is a very long one, spanning millions of years. Over this time, natural selection has shaped us, and we are well-adapted to breathe oxygen, learn language, and use our thumbs opposably. Equally, we could argue that natural selection has shaped our psychology. What, then, are the adaptations that psychologists should be able to find evidence for, and how well are these adaptions working in environments that may differ radically from those in our ancestral history?
The second broad view is to look for individual differences in our genes and see if these relate to individual differences in thinking, feeling, and behaving. This view, used by behavioural geneticists, requires understanding how genes — separately from environments — cause behaviour. Every individual is a unique combination of inherited DNA, but are there some combinations that are related to some behaviours? This is the type of question that behavioural geneticists ask. For example, are people with autism, or high levels of intelligence, genetically different from people without autism, or with lower levels of intelligence? Are there genetic differences underlying empathy, schizophrenia, effective parenting, and so on? How do genes combine and interact with environmental conditions? It is exceedingly difficult to isolate the effects of genes from the effects of environment and from the interaction of genes and environment on the human traits that psychologists tend to be interested in. Even if we know that some of the individual differences that are seen in levels of shyness are due to genetics, we do not know how heredity interacts with environment. This is challenging because genes are always expressed in environments, which is a basic fact that is easy to overlook. The old nature-nurture debate about whether some traits are more genetic or more environmentally determined is a diversion from the real question: what genes are important for which traits in which environments? The fact that genes affect how we think, feel, and behave is not under question. Instead, this chapter will help you to understand how to think about the relative impacts of genes and environments, both separately and in interaction.
When you have completed this chapter, you should have a good overview of the biological perspective on psychology and how it encompasses both the biology of individuals and the universal aspects of human design that has been inherited through hundreds of thousands of years of human evolutionary history.
Aldhous, P. (2008). Boléro: Beautiful symptom of a terrible disease. New Scientist. Retrieved from http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13599-bolero-beautiful-symptom-of-a-terrible-disease.html
Amaducci, L., Grassi, E., & Boller, F. (2002). Maurice Ravel and right-hemisphere musical creativity: Influence of disease on his last musical works? European Journal of Neurology, 9(1), 75–82.
Consejomunicipal. (2007, March 19). Boléro-Ravel [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-4J5j74VPw
Miller, B. L., Boone, K., Cummings, J. L., Read, S. L., & Mishkin, F. (2000). Functional correlates of musical and visual ability in frontotemporal dementia. British Journal of Psychiatry, 176, 458–463.
Seeley, W. W., Matthews, B. R., Crawford, R. K., Gorno-Tempini, M. L., Foti, D., Mackenzie, I. R., & Miller, B. L. (2008). Unravelling Boléro: Progressive aphasia, transmodal creativity, and the right posterior neocortex. Brain, 131(1), 39–49.